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Ornate tree trunk tombstone: Recalls All Saints Day death and symbolism

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A six-foot tree of sandstone with ferns and ivy has concentric rings etched at sawn-off branches. There is a cross near the top and a scroll carved with the birth and death dates.

By Sue Hunter Weir

Nels H. Nelson Russell died on November 2, 1898.  His marker, a six-foot tall tree carved from sandstone, is one of the most distinctive in the cemetery.  Stone ferns grow at the base of the tree and ivy is twined around its trunk.    Concentric rings are etched at the ends of the tree’s sawn-off branches.  There is a cross made of interlocking branches near the top of the tree, and beneath it, suspended by a stone rope, is a scroll that is carved with the birth and death dates of Mr. Russell and his wife Christina.

Mr. Russell died on All Saints Day, a fact that is inscribed on his marker.  It is a holy day that is observed in many forms by a variety of religious denominations throughout the world.  Regardless of where or when the observation takes place the intention is the same—to acknowledge the goodness and love of those who have gone before.  It is about more than merely remembering, it is about renewing the connection between the living and the dead.

The reference to All Saints Day on this marker also tells us something about the nature of Nels and Christina Russell and the family members who wanted others to remember them.  The words “His Son Erected this Memorial” are carved near the base of the tree.  That son, Nels J. Russell, was Nels H. and Christina’s only surviving son.  He worked as an insurance salesman but more importantly, was one of the founding members of Minneapolis’ St.Ansgarius Swedish Episcopal Church in Minneapolis.

The Russell family came to the United States from Sweden in 1879.  Nels H., the father, was born in 1818 and was 61 years old when they came to the United States.  His wife, Christina, was 48.  They came with three of their children:  Mathilda (born in 1859), Maria Nitilia (born in 1863) and Nels J. (born in 1864).  Census records indicate that the family had many more children but that only those three survived. Apparently, the children who did not survive died before the family left Sweden.

It is difficult to trace the family during their early years in the United States.  The family seems to have changed their last name from Nelson to Russell at some point, most likely because Nelson was such a common last name (there were 95 Nels Nelsons in Minneapolis in 1898). Christina’s legal name appears to have been Johanna, a name that is engraved on the marker and listed in cemetery records, but in all other records she is known as Christina.

The family was living in Illinois as early as 1890 and possibly earlier.  Maria Nitilia, the youngest daughter, married Reverend Olof Toffteen in Illinois on August 25, 1891.  Within two or three years of their marriage the family, including Nels and Christina, moved to Minneapolis where Reverend Toffteen became the first rector of St. Ansgarius Church, the church that his brother-in-law helped to establish.

russell-nelsonmarker-02The church was founded in 1893 with 30 members but on Christmas Day 1894, more than 2,000 people attended services there.  By June 1, 1895, the church had more than 700 registered members, not including children.

Nels and Christina Russell lived with their daughter and son-in-law, and it was in their home that Nels died on All Saints Day in 1898.  His death was attributed to old age; he was 81 years old.

Five years later Reverend Toffteen left St. Ansgarius.  He was credited with the church’s remarkable success but the work had been arduous and had compromised his health.  He and his wife returned to Chicago where he accepted a position as a professor of linguistics at Western Theological Seminary. Christina Russell returned to Chicago with them.  She died at their home from pneumonia on January 3, 1913; she was 91 years old.   Her remains were sent to Minneapolis to be buried next to her husband.

Tree-shaped markers, with their sawn off branches, are thought by some to symbolize life cut short.  That was clearly not the case with Nels and Christina Russell who lived very long lives.  Others believe that the tree represents the family and its sawn-off limbs symbolize the loss of a family member.  We have no way of knowing what meaning the tree held for the Russell’s children and, it may simply have been the case that they loved the look of these unusual, intricately carved markers.  The reference to All Saints Day suggests that they were hoping to create a memorial that would lead others to pause and reflect on the lives of those who have died and this marker serves that purpose well.

Nels and Christina Russell are buried in Lot 14, Block M of Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery.

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